Yeast cells decide whether to have sex with each other within two minutes of meeting, according Dr. Vahid Shahrezaei of Imperial College London, whose new insights into how yeast cells decide to mate could be helpful for researchers looking at how cancer cells and stem cells develop. Led by Dr. Mohan K. Malleshaiah and Dr. Stephen W. Michnick of Université de Montréal, the research was published today in Nature and was undertaken in collaboration with Dr. Peter Swain of McGill University and the University of Edinburgh.
Yeasts are single-celled microbes that scientists often use as model organisms, to help them understand how cells work. They usually reproduce asexually, by a process called budding, where a part of the cell is pinched off and becomes a new cell, identical to the original.
Sometimes, yeast cells reproduce sexually, by mating. The mating process involves one cell of each sex joining together, then mixing their DNA and splitting apart again. To do this, the cells each have to produce a nodule that they can join together, called a shmoo. The process of shmooing takes around two hours. “Shmooing is a very energy-intensive process for yeast cells. We think this switching process at a certain pheromone concentration may have evolved to make sure the cells only get prepared for sexual reproduction if a mate is sufficiently close enough and able to mate,” Shahrezaei said.
The researchers found that the yeast cell’s decision to mate is controlled by a chemical change on a single protein. This change occurs two minutes after the cell detects a pheromone produced by the opposite sex, meaning that the decision to mate occurs much more quickly than scientists previously thought.
In order for the mating process to be switched on, the pheromone must reach a critical concentration in the environment around the yeast cell. Below this concentration, the yeast cell continues to reproduce asexually.
Michnick, a Canada Research Chair in Integrative Genomics, explains that “the same molecules that create the switching decision in yeast are found in very similar forms in human cells. Similar switching decisions to those made by yeast are made by stem cells during embryonic development and become dysfunctional in cancers.”
“By combining experiments and mathematical modeling that take lots of different factors into consideration, we have been able to show exactly what is happening inside a yeast cell to make it decide whether to mate with another cell. We also showed that the mechanism that leads the cells to make their decision is very robust, meaning it is not affected by molecular noise in the environment,” added Shahrezaei. The mathematical model could potentially be used to investigate the triggers that cause changes in other cells, such as stem cells becoming heart or bone cells, or normal cells becoming cancerous.
On the Web:
Université de Montréal’s release: http://www.nouvelles.umontreal.ca/udem-news/index.php
Imperial College London: http://imperial.ac.uk
Peter Swain’s Laboratory: http://swainlab.bio.ed.ac.uk/
Source: Imperial College London
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